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August 2, 2021

Simone Biles: Drawing the Battle Lines

The Olympic gymnast’s decision to withdraw is not a battle worthy of even being a controversy.

When talking about our athletes and their behavior at the Olympics, there has been a lot of uproar. The most recent flap involved the gold medal favorite female gymnast, Simone Biles, who sparked controversy with her decision last week to withdraw from the team competition after having a disastrous vault in the first event of that meet. She subsequently withdrew from further competitions. Biles explained she was struggling with mental issues and did not feel it would be good for her to continue. Her decision came as a shock to the world — and immediately the battle lines were drawn. A lot of conservatives excoriated her decision as cowardice. They disingenuously decided she lacked toughness and patriotism.

This is not a battle worthy of even being a controversy, and here’s why.

We can debate being “a pansy” in an era of participation trophies and snowflake tendencies, but that is not what this is about. This writer must disagree with the conservative mainstream assessment of the situation. Having been an avid watcher of women’s gymnastics for many years and a collegiate-level athlete myself, it puts me in a unique position to understand the pressures that come when great expectations are thrust upon you. When my husband and I tuned in to the qualifying rounds on the first night of competition and the cameras zoomed in on Biles’s face, it was immediately apparent to me that she was not okay. I commented on it at the time with great concern. It was a look I had seen in the faces of others over the years. I knew that she was struggling. Her performance that night was a testament to that struggle. It was not up to her usual standards, and with each mistake, you could see the fear mounting in her eyes. In spite of that, she still managed to surpass every athlete there during the qualifying rounds. A few days later, however, when the actual team competition got underway, Biles got lost in the air — in what’s commonly known by gymnasts as “the twisties” — during her first vault and nearly fell off the mats with the roughness of the landing. She withdrew after that but stayed to cheer on her team from the sidelines.

Gymnastics is a sport that demands perfection. Athletes’ performances are scored out of a perfect 10, and Simone Biles is in a league of her own. At the level at which she competes, Biles has to be in perfect mental health and focus. If she isn’t, there’s a distinct possibility of her seriously injuring or even killing herself with a mis-execution of a skill. When you add to the mix the immense pressure of being called the GOAT (greatest of all time), it’s amazing that she didn’t feel overwhelming anxiety before now.

Having personal experience with loved ones who battle anxiety and depression, it’s important to hit home that mental illness cannot be fully — or often times even nominally — understood by those who are mentally “there.” We can’t know for sure Biles’s motives, but evidence suggests she was indeed mentally struggling. Her decision to withdraw ultimately put her team first. After all, her team went on to win the silver medal in that competition, which may not have been achieved had Biles continued under the duress she was in. Is that not patriotism?

Which brings us to the most important point: It is a far greater offense to Americans to have our own athletes kneel in opposition to the U.S. flag or even threaten to burn it on the podium as opposed to bowing out due to health concerns. Biles was not disrespecting the U.S. or its flag, nor being selfish or unpatriotic. On the contrary, she was respecting her country, team, and own personal health … which is more than can be said of other American athletes who use every opportunity on the world stage to intentionally embarrass and demean the American people.

Which is the more important battle to fight? The battle between personal needs that have nothing to do with being unpatriotic? Or the battle between fomenting hate by kneeling or lambasting your home country? The moral of this story: Be careful when judging — and make sure you’re on the right side of the battle line.

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